The New Vocabulary of Funkadelic (1970)

1970 saw plenty of classic lps, but among the heaviest and farthest out of the bunch is Funkadelic, the self-titled monster from George Clinton and his foundational funk-rock outfit. It’s a record that shook and informed Nick Mitchell Maiato of One-Eleven Heavy, who joins us here for a journey into its depths on the occasion of its 50th anniversary this year.

Before there was P-funk or even a Parliafunkadelicment thang; before the mothership, Dr. Funkenstein, Star Child, and Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk; before Atomic Dog, Snoop Dogg, and Dope Dogs, there was Funkadelic. Funkadelic: a musical phenomenon perfectly encapsulated within its name; an aural synthetic, formulated on the hustle.

The near-worn-out legend goes that, George Clinton’s Detroit-based, barbershop-conked vocal group the Parliaments released one single Motown subsidiary Revilot, “(I Just Wanna) Testify,” before being forced to cease and desist from using the moniker by the cigarette company they were named after. At this point, rather than just re-name the vocal group, he put the backing band—named Funkadelic by bassist Billy ‘Bass’ Nelson—front and center and sold them to local Detroit label Westbound, instead, leaving the singers’ names off the recording contract, and album artwork. To the record execs, it looked like a completely new group to take to market. To those on the inside, it was just the same old Parliaments. But something fundamental had also changed in that same moment. Not just the aesthetic, not just the music, but the entire, intangible essence of the group: a dank, stanky distillation of the ingredients that went into its making and came out the other end as…well, as something that could only be described as Funkadelic. 

As is well-documented, the band had done time on the stages of Detroit’s Grande Ballroom and the 20 Grand, opening for the likes of the Amboy Dukes, the Stooges, and the MC5. As a result of this influence, Clinton shrewdly harnessed the phenomenological power of rock’n’roll: buying his band Marshall stacks; abandoning the cool, well-dressed styling of his favorite group the Four Tops (instead, cutting a moon shape into his hair and donning a bedsheet with a hole cut in the center); and spending time studiously listening to Sly & The Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix, two other notable Black acts who’d managed to crossover to a largely white rock audience, to draw from their respective essences: high-energy rock-and-soul in the case of Sly; wild guitar histrionics in the case of Hendrix. 

The resulting eponymous debut album by Funkadelic, released on February 24th 1970, is near-academic in its dedication to the science of fusing two disparate sets of cultural tropes, each equally nauseating to its respective social hegemony: white freak culture and Black funkiness. The former of these has been much celebrated in the rock press; the latter less so, such is the lamentable cultural bias of the media in general. Stop someone on the street and ask them what “funk” means and they’ll probably tell you it’s a genre of music. But the word itself goes way deeper in African American culture. Drawing from the Old French fungiere and describing a strong odor, it was first documented in English as, “funky,” in 1784. By the 1930s, it was an idiomatic element of the jazz culture, describing a kind of stinky dedication, though not beloved of good Christian types.

As Clinton later put it on the title track of Funkadelic’s 1975 album, Let’s Take it to the Stage, “Funk used to be a bad word.” He expanded on this in a 2014 interview, telling Southern California Public Radio, “You’d get smacked upside your head if you [said ‘funk’]. It was too close to… you know… My grandparents thought we were insinuating the other word. It’s always nasty, but nasty’s good too.” Back in 1970 however, there had been few if any attempts to codify the guilty pleasure of the “nasty” subterranean Black experience. So, when Funkadelic by Funkadelic came along that year, it must have been little short of a revelation, steeped as it was in the joy of letting go of culturally embedded uptightness.

The album’s most philosophically-charged track “What Is Soul?” alone is a perfect encapsulation of this desire to transcend the boundaries of cultural definitions. It presents all manner of oblique options as to what the answer to that elusive question might really be—“a ham hock in your cornflakes,” maybe. “A joint rolled in toilet paper,” perhaps. Or, more darkly as a nod to the history of Black slavery and the racist prison industrial complex, “rusty ankles and ashy kneecaps.” What “What Is Soul?” ultimately tells us—beyond the fact that soul is inextricably bonded to a notion of Blackness—is that there is no finite answer to that question but, as a means to liberating soul from its well-dressed, lye-straightened-haired, white-family-friendly confines, it’s the asking of it that counts. 

It wasn’t until 1974 that Clinton fully realized this fantasy vision of funky liberation with his development of the Starchild character for the newly branded version of his vocal group, Parliament. Same singers, same band; different name, different record label, decked out in a pimp’s fur and feathered, wide-brimmed hat, and riding his very own Mothership through outer space. By this point, Clinton had, via former James Brown bassist William “Bootsy” Collins, who’d now joined the Parliafunkadelicment gang, committed both Parliament and Funkadelic to a musical styling more closely aligned to that of Brown, with melodic and rhythmic progressions firmly rooted in the first beat of every four-beat bar: what Brown had simply named, “the one.” This was a liberating action, allowing Clinton to largely abandon the now distinctly more white-sounding tropes of distorted electric rhythm guitar and typical I-IV-V-I rock chord progressions that had provided the platform from which to launch his assault on uptightness.

However, it’s the very burgeoning nature of this image of self that is at the heart of what makes the debut Funkadelic album so rich, so familiar and so immediately all-consuming to those who enter into its realm. There’s initially a self-doubting sense, for someone of my pallor, when hearing it critically that, “maybe it’s because I’m white;” that maybe the depth of white connection to Funkadelic is so strong because it’s the band’s one album that doesn’t sound out of place alongside Cream, Black Sabbath, and the Stooges. There’s no denying that, in the years that have passed since its release, that style of playing (what we now inopportunely tend to refer to as blues rock) has largely fallen out of favor with Black musicians—with notable exceptions, such as D’Angelo, Barrence Whitfield & The Savages, Gary Clark Jr. and Benjamin Booker—and the dominant populist style—both Black and white—has followed that invented by and initially codified by James Brown, given its own meta-ecosphere by Clinton and then endlessly sampled by hip-hop producers to the point of cultural saturation. But that’s not it – that’s definitely not it. No, what makes Funkadelic such an intensely powerful and transformative experience is actually far more empathic than that in the sense that, upon hearing it, there seems to be an automatic connection to the desire to break out into another world inherent within the performances of the musicians who play on it. The band name prepares you for a fusion experience; then the playing immerses you in it without the slightest effort on your part. And that’s even before you study the lyrical content.

The album opens with a spoken word intro by Clinton himself, heavily processed through an analog tape echo, that sets out the Funkadelic stall in no uncertain terms:

“If you will suck my soul/I will lick your funky emotion”

It is deeply druggy and otherized. There’s your white psychedelic experience box ticked, right there. Crucially, however, it is joyfully sexualized in a way that not even the white proponents of free love had yet dared to express so boldly. This deep sexuality of the opening track—the mischievously titled “Mommy, What’s a Funkadelic?”—immediately reminds us that we’re listening to a music that digs down to a root far older than that of the contemporary hippie rock scene; a music that owes a debt as much to the wry, tongue-in-cheek daring of Bull Moose Jackson’s “Big 10 Inch Record,” Dinah Washington’s, “Big Long Slidin’ Thing,” and Wynonie Harris’ “I Like My Baby’s Pudding” as it does to getting high and dancing topless in a field to the Jefferson Airplane. Euphemism be damned! Clinton’s mission was devilishly plain: “A yard of tongue down your throat.” The so-called sexual liberation movement didn’t have shit by comparison.

The aural catalyst for all this chemically enhanced daring is, of course, Funkadelic itself: the group of musicians who, between them, create the deliciously dank atmosphere within which it seems only natural to explore such fantasies. Surprisingly, of the players on this debut album, there’s likely only one the casual fan may be aware of: late lead guitarist Eddie Hazel (listed on the credits as simply “Ed Hazel”). With the exception of him and bassist Billy “Bass” Nelson (here, listed as “Bill Nelson”), who also went on to perform with later versions of the band, the other players are somewhat lost to the realms of oral history. Drummer Tiki Fulwood appeared hither and thither as the 70s progressed, only to be superseded by archetypal p-funk drummer Jerome “Bigfoot” Brailey. Organist Mickey Atkins was, of course, ultimately replaced by classically trained bandleader Bernie Worrell (who does appear, here on the debut, though uncredited). Many years after the fact, in 1995, rhythm guitarist Tawl Ross did go on to release a great solo album Giant Shirley under the name Tal Ross a.k.a detrimental vasoline, which was finally issued on vinyl in 2020, but he otherwise disappeared after the third Funkadelic album Maggot Brain in 1971 (allegedly having never come down from a bad trip), when Clinton enticed Bootsy and Catfish Collins’ band The House Guests to essentially become the Funkadelic band for 1972’s brilliant follow-up, America Eats Its Young. 

It’s pitiful that more isn’t made of the contribution to both the psychedelic rock and funk genres of the young, deeply talented, loose-jamming band of musical hedonists on Funkadelic, though perhaps it’s understandable given that their place in the culture sits firmly in neither camp. (Not to mention the fact that Clinton’s methodology of building a musical workforce around himself as central character meant that anyone but he was expendable.) Contrary to Robert Christgau’s putdown that Funkadelic is, “dark, slow, tuneless,” the band swings harder than Levon Helm and rocks harder than Jimmy Page. For my money, they also lift you higher than Booker T & The MGs could ever even dream of. Hazel’s lead guitar playing has, of course, long been compared to that of fellow Black rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix, but even that begins and ends at the title track from Maggot Brain for most listeners—who even talks about his astonishing playing on the debut record? 

On side one’s closing, wah-wah fueled banger, “I Got a Thing, You Got a Thing, Everybody’s Got a Thing,” the band reaches a sky-scraping crescendo that serves to remind us of the ethereal nature of musical creation. Its very existence as an aural structure is intangible, indescribable and irreplaceable in its ability to transpose our mood to one of a very specific ecstatic reverie. The music takes us to a place beyond the mundanity of regular, sensory existence – a metaphysical space that renders irrelevant the setting within which it is experienced. That’s a special feeling, indeed, and rare to boot. But the entire Funkadelic album has it in droves.

In that way, Funkadelic is a beautifully adolescent, coming-of-age record beyond just its desire to locate, explore and reveal with pride a new, fully formed version of the self. Listening to it even without paying attention to the lyrics can give you that inviolable feeling that anything is possible and that you will probably live forever in the ether. However, nowhere does that adolescent sweet spot between innocence and experience reveal itself more plainly than on the musical attempt to reconnect with the older generation that is “Music for my Mother.” 

The song describes a fantastical musical encounter with a blues harpist in an imaginary backwater called Keeprunnin’, Mississippi:

“I heard someone on my way by/Sounded a little something like raw funk to me/So I slowed down and took a listen/And this is all I could hear, baby/Whoa-hah-hey/Whoa-hah-ha”

Clinton told the L.A. Times, back in 1996, “I wanted to be like Jimi Hendrix was, feeling new to the blues… I didn’t like blues at first because it was my parents’ music.” In “Music for my Mother,” though Clinton was already 28 by the time of its release, we hear the desperate youthful attempt to show the older generation that there really isn’t anything scary or otherized about funky music – it’s the same blues that was always there, just expressed a little differently and with significantly less formal dress. What’s the problem, mom? Frightening and threatening as the image of a naked Black guy with a mohawk in a bed sheet may have been (and, depressingly, probably still would be – tsk!) to much of polite society, “Music for my Mother” presents us with nothing more than a sweet boy who loves his mom just having a good old time and hoping she’ll understand and pay a little bit more favorable attention to his efforts. A narcissistic male musician vicariously seeking his mother’s approval through his artistic peacocking? Who ever heard of such a thing?

Speaking of narcissistic males, it would be improper not to talk about the unsung singers on Funkadelic: the dapper dudes of the Parliaments/Parliament who remain uncredited even on later versions of the album, due to the legal wrangling that had taken place around the whole band name scenario. Older than the band who now technically fronted them, Clarence “Fuzzy” Haskins, Calvin Simon, Ray Davis and Grady Thomas had allegedly taken to the re-outfitting of Parliafunkadelicment into space-age hippie clobber somewhat reluctantly in the first instance (especially bass singer Ray Davis, who performs one of the lead vocals on the album’s densely syncopated, soon-to-be-covered-by-the-Jackson-Five-of-all-groups highlight, “I Bet You,” and who maintained a somewhat more well-groomed appearance than the rest of the band all the way through the 1970s until the point of his departure.) But you’d never know it to listen to them. They sing with all the Day-Glo abandon of a church choir freshly dosed with Owsley’s finest: their joy in having been corrupted, as straight society would see it, is tangible. 

Of all the original Parliaments, the singer who really comes to the fore as a small-f funkadelic force is Fuzzy Haskins. A lesser-spotted member of the Parliafunkadelicment thang who eventually slipped into obscurity after he, along with Simon and Thomas, quit the band over a financial  dispute with Clinton, Fuzzy’s stanky, raw funk power can be seen in all its glory in the performance of 1974 track “Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On” in the commercially distributed 1976 film of Parliament-Funkadelic performing live at the Summit in Houston, Texas. Here on the debut, however, it is his vocals on “Good Old Music” (another song that plainly seeks maternal approval, by the way) that remind us of why this isn’t just another White psychedelic rock band, but something beautifully and proudly of African-American origin. Proselytizing wildly on the subject of dancing, Fuzzy leads us through a loose narrative describing the audience experience of being at a Parliament-Funkadelic show and, simplistic to the Nth degree as it is, it is nevertheless utterly engaging as an attempt to make the listener feel that they’re right there, sharing in the joyful moment.

From its very first seconds beyond Clinton’s opening psychedelic mindfuck bargain, when the band hammers on and off an open chord by way of announcing their presence, right through to the closing, tape-echoed lip smacks as he warmly reassures us that, “Soul is you…Soul is you…,” Funkadelic is a rip-roaring announcement of semantic arrival: we are here, we are different, and we could not be happier about it. If James Brown’s 1968 song, “Say it Loud, I’m Black & I’m Proud,” was the call to action, Funkadelic’s 1970 debut was the response. It is singular in the Funkadelic discography as a perfect encapsulation of its own meta-nomenclature and, in some ways, it’s a shame that every subsequent Funkadelic album didn’t rely as heavily on the same simplistic cocktail recipe to achieving similar mental lift-off, but that would kind of miss the point.

Refinement (and expansion) of purefunk (i.e. P-Funk) as a concept, which has been Clinton’s lifelong mission and continues to this day, necessitated an abandonment of cultural codependency, which meant ultimately trimming away the rough-hewn blues rock edges from Funkadelic and developing a new vocabulary, without precedent from within the existing cultural power structure. That doesn’t, however, mean that Funkadelic isn’t, in and of itself, a perfect expression of funkadelicism. Whatever that is.

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